Exodus 1:15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.
The account of the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, is set in a scene of overwhelming cruelty and oppression. The King of Egypt has enslaved the people of Israel having set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor Ex1:11 who are ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them Ex 1:14. Yet out of this misery comes a moment of great courage. The women disregard the edict of death imposed by the empire and instead choose to remain faithful to life. And so is recounted the first biblical example of individual moral resistance to an empire.
The Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, states, “In reward for the righteous women of that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt.” It is out of this community of righteous, faithful women that Shiphrah and Puah come. But they are called before the king not because they are righteous but because as midwives they hold a precious role in society. The king, in his utter disregard for both life and community, sees them only as tools. They who are blessed with bringing new life into the world are now charged to take life in the service of the empire.
The edict of the king calls for death, the killing of newborns. It carries with it the danger of the extinction of a generation, and ultimately, a people. It aims to penetrate the psyche of a community by commanding that at the moment of birth, even before the killing is to be done, those given this ignominious task are first required to look for and see difference: if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live. Ex 1:16 The woman, the midwives are to look at the newborn life and see difference and based on that difference assign judgment, and after judgment, take action. For some they are commanded to choose death. Here is the new plan of the Empire: life shall begin and be lived according to difference, separation, judgment and death.
But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them. Ex 1:17. This consciousness of God’s existence, this fear of God, is a phrase repeated in moments of moral decision-making. When Moses selects leaders for the people, he does so based on their fear of God Ex 18:21. Joseph also fears God and thus wins the trust of his brothers, Gn 42:18-20. It suggests resoluteness- a confidence in the awesomeness of God. The fear of God also contains moral requirements and in the case of Shiphrah and Puah it confirms that they will refuse to see as the empire sees. They refuse to fear the ones the empire fears. They refuse to follow the actions of death that the empire commands. And lives are saved.
The king then calls for Shiphrah and Puah again, demanding their reason for not following his order. They do not explicitly answer his question but instead assert that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” Ex 1:19. Their clever, and somewhat cheeky, answer asserts their position as outsiders to the empire and slings a bit of an insult to their oppressors. And for their steadfastness they are rewarded, for God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. Ex 1:20.
It is clear that this nameless king of Egypt, does not anticipate or comprehend the influence of Shiphrah and Puah within the Hebrew community. It is both the arrogance of power and a cultural dismissal of women that allows for him to assume they will kill their own sons simply because he orders it so. It is the Hebrew men who have been a threat to him and so on them the subjugation has been focused. But in the meantime the community of women have been quietly, and importantly, living faithful lives.
There has always been a history of life within the violent confines of empire, a narrative that lives and breathes outside of the mainstream. Like the subconscious self this narrative often lives slightly below the surface of the recorded story, emerging every once in a while as a reminder that it exists. The story of Shiphrah and Puah is our story and so we too must be ever conscious of what we know to be life giving. And when the Empire tries to use its power towards death and difference and fear we will hear those words, understand their dark purpose and continue our work faithfully.